Designing the Soft Side of Customer Service

In service environments, customers have complex needs. Even in the most mundane encounters, emotions are lurking under the surface. Your job is to make those feelings positive.

Reading Time: 20 min 


Permissions and PDF

Image courtesy of Flickr user Kliefi

When people think about innovation in customer service, they usually think in terms of technological or process enhancements that make service delivery faster or more efficient. In recent years, restaurants have introduced hand-held devices that buzz patrons when their table is ready, and supermarkets offer customers self-service checkout lines. While such innovations may simplify matters for customers, service organizations rarely stop to consider the overall psychology that shapes service encounters. Indeed, despite the plethora of articles and books about managing the customer experience, many key psychological variables that influence customer perceptions — the subtle enhancements that help define a positive experience — have yet to be defined or articulated fully. (See “About the Research.”)

Organizations often measure the outcomes of service encounters in concrete terms such as on-time flight arrivals or the time to resolve a customer’s call. However, the subjective outcomes — the emotions and the feelings — are more difficult to describe: Did the passenger enjoy the flight? Did the customer who called the service center with a problem hang up feeling better about the provider? Much as having a deeper understanding of systems dynamics and process analysis has pushed companies to re-engineer their operations to achieve explicit outcomes, findings from behavioral decision- making research, cognitive psychology and social psychology can point service providers to ideas for redesigning the psychological or implicit aspects of service encounters.

The Leading Question

How can service organizations make their encounters with customers more positive?

  • Service providers need to recognize how emotions, trust and feelings about control shape how customers perceive their service experience.
  • The “ETCs” need to be managed as design variables.
  • The “soft side” of customer service requires the same management intensity as, say, supply chain redesign.

In an earlier article we drew upon the seminal work by decision theorists such as Kahneman, Ariely and Loewenstein to propose several service design principles.1 We noted, for example, that good service design needs to pay attention to the sequence of events that comprise the service.2 All things being equal, it is also good practice to conclude an encounter on a high note — to “finish strong.” Further, it helps to get the unpleasant parts out of the way early so people have events to look forward to.



1. B.L. Fredrickson and D. Kahneman, “Duration Neglect in Retrospective Evaluation of Affective Episodes,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60 (July 1993): 45-55; G.F. Lowenstein and D. Prelec, “Preferences for Sequence of Outcomes,” Psychological Review 100 (1993): 91-108; and D. Ariely and Z. Carmon, “Gestalt Characteristics of Experiences: The Defining Features of Summarized Events,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 13 (2000): 191-200.

2. R.B. Chase and S. Dasu, “Want to Perfect Your Company’s Service? Use Behavioral Science,” Harvard Business Review 79 (June 2001): 78-84.

3. J.E. Ledoux, “Systems and Synapses of Emotional Memory,” chap. 8 in “Memory: Organization and Locus of Change” ed. L.R. Squire, N.M. Weinberger, G. Lynch and J.L. McGaugh (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

4. R.S. Lazarus and S. Folkman, “Stress, Appraisal, and Coping” (New York: Springer Publishing, 1984).

5. I.J. Roseman, M.S. Spindel and P.E. Jose, “Appraisals of Emotion-Eliciting Events: Testing a Theory of Discrete Emotions,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59, no. 5 (November 1990): 899-115.

6. C.W.L. Hart, J.L. Heskett and W.E. Sasser, “The Profitable Art of Service Recovery,” Harvard Business Review 68 (July 1990): 148-156.

7. V.S. Folkes, “Recent Attribution Research in Consumer Behavior: A Review and New Directions,” Journal of Consumer Research 14, no. 4 (March 1988): 548-565.

8. M.J. Bitner, “Evaluating Service Encounters: The Effects of Physical Surroundings and Employee Responses,” Journal of Marketing 54, no. 2 (April 1990): 69-82.

9. E.N. Marcus, “When Young Doctors Strut Too Much of Their Stuff,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 2006.

10. D.L. Rotter and J.A. Hall, “Doctors Talking with Patients/ Patients Talking with Doctors: Improving Communications in Medical Visits” (Westport, Connecticut: Auburn House, 1992).

11. G.R. Bitran and J. Hoech, “Humanization of Service: Respect at the Moment of Truth,” Sloan Management Review 31, no. 2 (winter 1990): 89-96.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comments (5)
An article that brings another facet to customer service.  I typically think in terms of speed, quality, and cost but you've correctly identified a 4th dimension of service... emotion.  In any event, companies that focus on delivering service as a core competency can expect improved profitability:
Sriram Dasu
Hi Katherine:

My email is  Thanks.
Lance Bettencourt
Loved the prior article and this one. I was just teaching an exec class on service innovation and we began talking about innovation with customer feelings in mind. We were speaking of a desire to feel cared for or valued in a healthcare setting. We then started talking about evidences of this from their experience. Evidences that quickly emerged, for example, were getting a follow-up call and remembering and using my name. A simple yet very effective approach - especially when tied to discrete steps in the process of obtaining service.
Mayank B
I think well said. But it is important to know how an organisation can classify or gather the information along these brackets. 

As it is common knowledge that sales rep in field and customer service representatives are best source of information, but as well is it is very difficult to capture this information & also at the right time.

Organisations should encourage concepts of enterprise 2.0/ tools which are very simple and intuitive so that these people can update their experiences regularly. Other employees should be encouraged to comment and discuss this issue. This will ensure regular flow of information, which we at Minesweeper Biz believe is far effective than annual surveys.
Mayank (mayankb [at]
Katherine Kawamoto
I'd like to get in touch and possibly do an Ask the Expert interview.